Teaching Race & Nature: An Interview with April Anson

by Christy Tidwell

Birding while Black. On May 25, 2020, Amy Cooper (a white woman) called 911 when Christian Cooper (a Black man) asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. This incident drew attention to the daily racism many Black people face in the U.S. and to deeply held ideas about which people belong in nature and which people do not.

“I can’t breathe.” On the same date, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, MN, after an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. During these minutes, Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” Tragic in its own right, this phrase also resonates with the environmental harm from pollution that disproportionately affects Black communities.

Prompted initially by the death of George Floyd, protests against racism and police violence have since spread across the nation and the world and are still ongoing. These events are not isolated, nor are the issues they expose new. The level of attention to them right now is perhaps unique, however, and, in response to this attention, April Anson (a member of ASLE’s Executive Council) has written and posted a list of resources addressing the intersection of race and environment in North America. This list has been shared many times on social media and is a valuable resource for both environmental humanities scholars and scholars of race.

I invited April to talk with me about how these resources can be used in the classroom. In the following interview (conducted via email), she notes some of the specific texts she’s found most teachable, provides context for teaching them, describes some of her methods, and considers how she deals with resistance from students.

Mural of George Floyd by EME Freethinker in Mauerpark, Berlin.

Christy Tidwell: I understand that you’ve taught a few of the scholarly texts on your Race & Nature list of resources. Which ones have you taught and in what context?

April Anson: I try to work Purdy, Brave-Noisecat, Cronon, Dunbar-Ortiz, Whyte, and Tuck & Yang’s work into every class I teach. Their writing is accessible, incisive, and provides vital history to place the primary texts we read such as Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust” and Simon Pokagon’s “Red Man’s Rebuke” as well as 20th century texts like Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” and Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto. Most recently, we read these in an upper division English class at Penn entitled “Apocalypse and the Anthropocene,” where I also taught selections from Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None and the introduction of Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. These texts are a bit dense, but their power analysis helps fill out our understanding of the relationships between settler colonialism, racial formation, and capitalism.

  • Purdy, Jedediah, Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker 15 August 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.
  • Brave-Noisecat, Julian, “The Environmental Movement Needs to Reckon with its Racist History,” Vice, https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/bjwvn8/the-environmental-movement-needs-to-reckon-with-its-racist-history
  • Cronon, William, “The Trouble with the Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by William Cronon, W.W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90.
  • Selections from Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2015.
  • Selections from Estes, Nick. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, Verso, 2018.
  • Selections from Finney, Carolyn, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. U of North Carolina P, 2014.
  • Selections from Spence, Mark, Dispossessing the Environment: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Oxford UP, 2000.
  • Whyte, Kyle, “Our Ancestor’s Dystopian Now” and “Indigenous (Science) Fiction”
  • Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, 1, 2012, 1-40.
  • Selections from Yusoff, Katherine. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, U of Minnesota P, 2019.

CT: How did students respond to those texts? What suggestions would you give others looking to teach those texts (or similar ones)?

AA: Students seem to really latch on to the genealogy that Purdy offers. I’ve found his piece pairs well with segments of Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People as a foundation for the beginning of the course, so we have a historical road map for the primary texts we read throughout the term.

CT: The class you mentioned above is an upper level class; have you taught these texts to students in lower-level classes? If so, how do students respond differently in these different settings? If not, how do you think you might approach teaching some of these texts to students in lower-level classes? Which texts do you think would be most productive in that context?

AA: I’ve taught Purdy, Brave-Noisecat, Dunbar-Ortiz, Whyte, and Tuck & Yang to an introductory to fiction, general education course on Environmental Justice and students responded well. For lower division courses, I try to cover the same topics, but with less depth and more popular writings from these scholars. I’ve found the primers in each section of the list to teach very well and tend to use their genealogies to suggest possible places/people for student research

CT: Beyond teaching the scholarship itself, how have you approached teaching the big ideas reflected in the Race and Nature list? For instance, what literature/film helps students think through those ideas?

AA: I have been less consistent with the primary texts I’ve assigned, mostly because the student population and course needs have varied. However, I almost always begin with “Romanticism on the Mountaintop” readings that William Cronon put together (and often paired with his “Trouble with the Wilderness” article and Mark Dowie’s short section on “Wilderness WASPS” in Losing Ground) to give a sense of the “canonical” American environmentalists and how to read for the politics of racial formation and power relations.

Films like 6th World and Black Panther both invite complicated readings, which have been useful to compile a group critical reading out of our discussions. I take notes on student comments and then we try to organize them into a coherent critical reading. I post that outline as a model for their critical analysis assignment(s).

I always, always include pieces of adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy somewhere in the term—it is useful anywhere in the course arc, and I often use excerpts to frame a class discussion. For instance, I’ve used her incisive point that “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography” to talk about Ian McEwan’s Solar. McEwan’s novel brilliantly, and eerily, narrates the limited imagination of white-fragility and violence embedded in our climate concerns. However, I’ve found students are often already familiar with what Solar has to say because it is, in some ways, an exaggerated version of the predominant story told in most of our familiar media—the tale of a troubled, self-defeating, and delusional white scientist who thinks the world revolves around him. I see a lot of students craving ways to think beyond that particular representation. They have recently really enjoyed more experimental work like Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ M: Archive. I aim to encourage students to take the questions from the course to any piece of writing that they care about—this variety reveals environmental justice concerns embedded everywhere, and seeing where students take the issues has been the most rewarding.

CT: What are the challenges specific to teaching race & nature together?

AA: It is complicated and takes time to treat these histories fully, as well as ethically attend to their relevance to our present moment. We each come to the materials with different life experiences and prior knowledges and from a range of subject positions. This means that there is so much potential for generative, diverse thinking but also that there is a potential for hurt to come up or to get activated. These subjects must be grounded in agreements of care that are articulated over and over in the classroom.

CT: Tell us more about these agreements of care. How do you develop and articulate these in the classroom? What might an agreement of care in one of your classes look like?

AA: We generate these together, so they are always are class-specific. However, I always add my own: We agree that we all have strong, capable brains and we agree to assume the best intentions from every one of our class members. Meaning that, when someone says something that is hurtful, we have an obligation to point it out because we assume the individual did not mean to harm. Likewise, when someone says something we disagree with, we have an obligation to ask for more information because we assume that individual does not mean us harm. I try to model this by using comments such as “When you said X, I heard Y and that felt bad because… Can we talk through this a little more?”

Source: Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash.

CT: What have you done to address the challenges of teaching race and nature together?

AA: I’ve found it most useful to begin the term with, and repeatedly return to, the acknowledgement that much of what makes our classroom possible was founded upon exclusions and erasures of many Indigenous peoples, through land theft, deceit, violence, and colonial knowledge production. In that recognition, we denounce any attempt to legitimate or update the doctrine of discovery, other justifications of the ongoing processes of settler colonialism, and any “settler atmospherics” that compromise the right to breathe. We talk about how we inevitably engage imperfectly and unevenly in this work and thus must commit to continuing to learn how to be better allies in struggles for Indigenous self-determination, better supporters of anti-colonial movements, and better stewards of the lands we inhabit.

Practically, I’ve found it useful to organize the term first by tropes that naturalize white-nature, such as the notions of wilderness (paired, as I said, with Cronon’s packet), pastoral, sublime, and “man,” categories very familiar to environmental rhetoric that truck in racial hierarchies by naturalizing the white male patriarch as the stand-in for all subjectivity.

CT: Do students resist land acknowledgments? I imagine having this conversation with my students in Rapid City, South Dakota, and I worry that using this as a starting point would alienate many of them before we even begin. If you have had student resistance to this, how have you dealt with it? If not, what might help your students avoid that reaction, and what suggestions might you give others for dealing with student resistance?

AA: I’ve also not made this an area for conversation inside the classroom—it is not debatable in much the same way that the reality of climate change is not debatable. However, if and when a student takes issue, I welcome a longer conversation with the class—I use my own experiences of coming to understand the history of the lands I grew up on and ask after other students’ origins and who the long-standing caretakers of that land are. Most do not know, and so we talk about why that is. Why we don’t know the history of the country we live in. This usually moves it from performative, or virtue signaling, to the personal and relevant. I’ve also taught in Portland and Eugene, Oregon, and in Philadelphia, and my experience in white rural communities is now about a decade ago, so I am certainly not promoting my approach as universally effective.

CT: What recommendations might you give others who wish to incorporate such ideas into their regular literature courses and/or their environmental humanities courses?

AA: Try it! There are so many rich and rewarding directions to take this work—working from contemporary questions backwards, or historical injustices forward, or otherwise. Just don’t expect one piece to stand in for the whole of a particular question regarding racial formation and politics, or for a particular author or thinker to be commenting for their communities. Pluralize everything, over and over and over again!

CT: April also shared a project from one of her classes that I find very inspiring! Her students made a two-page representation of their final research to include in a digital broadsheet that they had been adding to all term. More description and the final product can be found here

Dr. April Anson is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and, this fall, she will join San Diego State University as Assistant Professor of Public Humanities. Dr. Anson writes and teaches at the intersection of the environmental humanities and American studies, paying particular attention to Indigenous studies and political theory. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in boundary 2, Environmental History, Western American Literature, and others.